Patterico's Pontifications


Turns Out Repealing Net Neutrality Wasn’t Disastrous After All

Filed under: General — JVW @ 9:05 pm

[guest post by JVW]

Ajit Pai, who suffered the ridiculous fear-mongering among the anti-capitalist tech elite and their allies, takes a well-deserved victory lap:

Do you remember where you were five years ago today, on June 11, 2018? I’d be surprised if you don’t. For that was the day the internet ended — the day the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) repeal of so-called “net neutrality” regulations went into effect.

Why was this a big deal? What led apparent journalists to prepare lists like “The six terrible ways your life will change when Net Neutrality dies”? What led apparent celebrities like Alyssa Milano and Mark Ruffalo to issue fevered tweetstorms, saying that repeal of net neutrality was “one of the biggest” issues “threatening our democracy,” and an “authoritarian dream”? What led public officials to claim that this decision put “lives at risk”?

It was over eight years ago, just after the 2014 midterm elections delivered Congress into GOP hands, when the Obama Administration first starting floating this idea of the government regulating the Internet in order to prevent those awful ISP companies like AT&T, Spectrum, Verizon, and Time-Warner from throttling our streaming if we didn’t pony up for premium service, or rapacious content providers like Twitter, Facebook, and Google to start making us pay to see pictures of the grandkids or watch YouTube videos. You know who saw through all of this nonsense way back then? Our esteemed host did. Here is what Patterico wrote back in November 2014, just a couple of weeks after the election [original emphasis in all cases below]:

It seems to me that the Net Neutrality proponents are trying to repeal the laws of supply and demand through legislation. Such efforts always end badly. We should re-label the effort “Net Communism.” Let me explain.

The Internet promotes this illusion of a Shangri-La world of unlimited access to unlimited data for free. Of course, we all realize (if we think about it) that this isn’t quite the case. You have to pay at both ends of Al Gore’s information superhighway.

On the receiving end, whether you access the Internet through your phone or your computer, you typically have to pay an ISP for access. You could go to a Starbucks and grab their free WiFi, but somebody has to pay for that access (hint: it’s Starbucks). They pay for it, and provide it to you for free, to lure you there and sell you overpriced coffee-style drinks and pastries. But someone has to pay.

On the serving end, you must pay as well. As you have probably noticed (since you’re here) I have a Web site. I pay to maintain the URL, and I pay hosting fees to a company that hosts the site on a server. Because I don’t pay thousands of dollars every month, the server capacity I can purchase is limited. I share a server with several other sites that also typically do not need a dedicated, gold-plated server. This arrangement typically suits my needs, but the site is not necessarily able to sustain a link from Matt Drudge. (I have found this out before.)

[. . .]

But what if I could somehow convince the government to order the ISP to treat my Web site “equally” — even though I don’t pay more? Then, instead of having an incentive to increase capacity (you pay us more and we’ll give you more bandwidth), the hosting company would have no choice but to allow that Drudge link to pound the shared server, melting every site on it.

That’s because the government’s order to the hosting company would be a price control. In effect, the government would be ordering the hosting company to provide $10,000 a month worth of access for $80.

And what happens when price controls are instituted? If you answered: “shortages” you get the gold star.

A couple of months later, P. came back with an argument that hit upon the crux of the matter:

Listen up, people.

Once the federal government is in control of the Internet, it is just a matter of time until it imposes oppressive policies that will burden those who criticize government. All in the name of “fairness” and “equality,” of course.

Today of course, the magic word would be “equity” and not “equality,” but our host was absolutely right. Patterico easily dispatched with some counter-arguments from the “government regulation can fix every problem” crowd, though our host did have to return to the subject here, and here. He also pointed out to us the excellent argument advanced from a libertarian perspective at Reason, and closed the matter for the time being by relating how the imposition of Net Neutrality by the Obama Administration had unsurprisingly led to fee increases in Internet service.

Fortunately for everyone, newly-inaugurated President Donald Trump appointed the redoubtable Mr. Pai to be Chairman of the FCC, and he withstood cheap demagoguery from the usual suspects to win confirmation later that fall. In December of 2017, the FCC voted by a three to two majority to discontinue the Obama era regulations. Mr. Pai remembers much of the hysteria surrounding that vote:

Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) proclaimed, as did “news” outlet CNN, that this was “the end of the Internet as we know it.” Not to be outdone, a columnist at the New York Times moaned that “the freewheeling internet has been dying a slow death,” and that repealing net neutrality rules “would be the final pillow in its face.” The Senate Democratic Caucus’s Twitter account proclaimed, “If we don’t save net neutrality, you’ll get the internet one word at a time” — putting each word on a separate line to emphasize the danger. Famed telecommunications regulatory experts like anonymous street artist Banksy and Silicon Valley representative Ro Khanna predicted that internet applications would become pay-per-view, with consumers having to pay $1.99 per Google search or to purchase them in packages. And for good measure, multiple U.S. senators called the decision “un-American.”

The Pai family would also bear the brunt of left-wing ire, including thuggish intimidation attempts. Various professional grievance groups forecast — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — that it would be their community who would be especially put at a disadvantage with the repeal of Net Neutrality. It seems like damn near everybody — from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the National Association of Realtors to the ACLU predicted calamity. Mr. Pai is here to set the record straight:

In sum, the critics were confident and clear: A digital apocalypse was upon us. Half a decade later, we can now make a sober assessment of their predictions. Were they right?

In an era defined by the paranoid style of American political argument, it may not surprise you to learn that they were not. In fact, they were diametrically wrong. The evidence is indisputable today that in the five years since the FCC’s decision to repeal net-neutrality regulations went into effect, American consumers are benefiting from broadband networks that are stronger and more extensive than ever. According to independent measurement service Ookla, average fixed broadband speeds in the U.S. are 287 percent faster today than they were in June 2018 (269.28 Mbps download speeds today versus 93.98 Mbps in 2018). Average mobile broadband speeds have increased even more, at 570 percent (156.51 Mbps versus 27.47 Mbps). Millions more Americans have access to the internet today compared with 2018, thanks in large part to private investment in digital infrastructure.

And on top of that, consumers are benefiting from more choice than in 2018. Indeed, competition has not just increased but transformed since then. Residential fiber deployment hit an all-time high last year. Wireless companies like T-Mobile are providing high-speed 5G fixed wireless service to millions of customers. Companies like Starlink are launching low-Earth-orbit satellites to support residential-broadband service, especially in harder-to-reach rural areas. And cable companies are expanding their footprint and upgrading their systems to enable much faster speeds.

This is precisely what our host and others were telling us back in 2014-15: leaving the Internet largely unregulated by the FCC would open it up to better options, awesome innovation, and increased investment from industry. Tightly regulating it, a la Net Neutrality, would diminish all of those benefits. And to those regulation advocates who had unfavorably compared the U.S. to Europe in terms of Internet coverage, Mr. Pai has this rejoinder:

The contrast between America’s broadband consumers and their European counterparts during the Covid-19 pandemic is telling. Americans with internet access largely were able to rely on broadband networks to do videoconference calls, stream in high-definition, and otherwise stay connected. Abroad, however, a key European commissioner felt compelled to ask streaming services to throttle video content to standard definition. Why? Because he feared that otherwise digital “infrastructures might be in strain.” I’d argue they were “in strain” partly because the European Union has had quite strict net-neutrality regulations that meaningfully undermine the incentive for investment in high-capacity broadband infrastructure. Fortunately, neither I nor any other public official in the United States had to make a similar request, then or since.

Mr. Pai acknowledges that repealing Net Neutrality didn’t exactly prevent censorship on the Internet, but points out that it didn’t come from those evil ISPs, but from the likes of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, and notes that the Twitter executives had especially dire predictions of ISP meddling in free speech issues when in fact it was Twitter itself who was arguably the worst offender. Ironically enough, that has helped make the case that Ajit Pai and his allies were trying to make all along: that the problem would come not from ISPs, but from content providers. Somehow that doesn’t seem to bother the left. These uncomfortable outcomes will make it difficult — but not impossible — for Democrats to credibly restore Net Neutrality, and the problems that President Biden has had filling the tie-breaking seat have kept the issue at bay for the most part, and it no longer seems like much of a priority for Team Brandon.

Final thoughts on what has become a very long post ought rightly to belong to Mr. Pai. Here we go:

Five years from that seminal June day when net-neutrality regulations were repealed, you probably don’t hear much about the issue anymore. I don’t either. In fact, the closest it comes is when someone stops me and asks whether I still have the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup mug that John Oliver helped make famous in 2017 during his fact-free rant about net neutrality. (Answer: You bet I do.) The primary reason the issue has receded is that the FCC’s decision was the right one: It has resulted in enormous benefits for broadband consumers. Conversely, the over-the-top rhetoric has over time revealed itself to those of good faith as, well . . . completely over-the-top. And I suppose those who were simply looking for a reason to be outraged now have moved on to the next thing. In any event, if you’ve read to this point, congratulations: You managed to survive the end of the internet as we know it and can now tell your story — even online.

Kudos to Ajit Pai, Brendan Carr, and Mike O’Reilly, the three FCC commissioners who had the stones to stand up against the dominant media narrative and vote to repeal Net Neutrality, and kudos to Patterico who was there early in support of trashing the bureaucratic domination of a vital medium of information exchange. They were — are you listening, Barack Obama? — on the right side of history.


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